The Corrosive Politics of Virtue

The most influential men in America met in Boston. The nation, they agreed, faced a terrible moral crisis: rampant substance abuse, sex (even the old taboo against naked breasts seemed to be gone), illegitimacy. Public schools were languishing, the pursuit of profits was appalling, the explosion of lawsuits completely out of hand. Worst of all, parents were doing a terrible job of raising their kids—not enough discipline. "Most of the evils" that afflict our society, reported the conference, stem from "defects as to family government." The gathering published a famous call for moral reform in 1679.

More than 300 years later, the old jeremiad is still doing a brisk business. From every political quarter we hear the same story—moral failures vex the nation. Almost no one in public life demurs. The warnings of spiritual decline sound vaguely plausible. Besides, why oppose calls for more virtuous behavior?

This essay suggests why. The moral diagnosis is wrong and its political consequences are pernicious. The moralizing divides Americans into a righteous "us" and a malevolent "them." Once those lines are drawn, you can forget about social justice, progressive thinking, or universal programs. Instead, the overarching policy question becomes "How do we protect ourselves and our children?" Never mind health care—build more jails.

Contemporary moralizing stands in a long, unhappy American political tradition. When economic and social problems are transformed into declining moral standards, the hunt is on for immoral people who threaten the public good. There are always plenty of suspects (though the contemporary list is particularly skewed toward poor people's sins). In the tumult of their witch-hunts, Americans ignore an alternative moral tradition that aspires, with Abraham Lincoln, "to touch . . . the better angels of our nature."


Today, the calls to virtue sound across the full spectrum of American culture. At the highbrow end, academics like James Q. Wilson (The Moral Sense) and Gertrude Himmelfarb (The De-Moralization of Society) set out, as Wilson puts it, "to help people recover the confidence with which they once spoke about virtue and morality."

Among the middlebrow, the footnotes start to melt away and exhortation takes over. William Bennett, Ben Wattenberg, Amitai Etzioni, and many others have enjoyed success thumping rectitude to general audiences. "SHAME," blares the cover of Newsweek. The subtitle tells the story: "Intolerance has gotten a bad rap in recent years, but there should be a way to condemn behavior that's socially destructive."

Finally, down at the other end sits the really big morality market. Fundamentalist and evangelical books (and tapes and videos) offer rousing sermons, exhortations, and warnings. Preachers like Tim and Beverly LaHaye construct a vivid narrative of America that can be summed up by the titles they have published in the past three years: Faith of our Founding Fathers, The Spirit Filled Family, A Nation Without A Conscience, and What Everyone Should Know About Homosexuality.

Put aside the differences in tone, sophistication, and packaging, and what you find is a startling convergence in the message. From prestigious academics to fundamentalist preachers, the moralists offer very different audiences a consistent narrative about American politics and culture. It is a story in which good people try to cling to their morals despite an overwhelming, sneering, secular tide.

When "ordinary men and women . . . wish to make moral judgments," writes Wilson, "they must do so privately and in whispers." Himmelfarb wonders "whether the million purchasers of William Bennett's The Book of Virtues had to overcome their initial embarrassment in order to utter that word." Once upon a time, the dirty pornographer or the embarrassed condom purchaser skulked about. But with the great revolution of American mores, it is now those who would be good who sneak red-faced while pornography is everywhere and condoms (but not prayers!) are passed around in school. Reading across the literary spectrum, the tone moves from tart irony to raw outrage—much of it directed at the federal government for buying condoms while barring Christ from public schools. But the constant message boils down to this: Our society has abandoned the morals that once guided us.

And there will be hell to pay. The trends, writes Himmelfarb, bode "even worse for the future than for the present." Or, as Reverend LaHaye puts it in The Battle for the Mind: "For over seventy-five years, judges, legislators, governors, mayors and presidents have introduced legislation based on [secular humanism] which is destructive of morality and family solidarity. We have arrived at the gates of Sodom and Gomorrah." Recall that God burned Sodom and Gomorrah to cinders in His wrath over the people's iniquity (in fact, it's at Sodom where the Bible first raises the specter of brimstone and fire).

How do we avoid that kind of fate? In Strength For the Journey, Jerry Falwell puts it directly: God needs us to "save the nation from inward moral decay."

Subscribe to The American Prospect


Has America really developed a secular culture that runs down morality and deprecates religion? No. The charge is popular fiction. Every available measure suggests people in the United States continue to talk about God with a gusto unmatched in the Western world. G.K. Chesterton once described the United States as a nation with the soul of a church. The description remains apt.

According to surveys by the Gallup Organization, 95 percent of Americans profess a faith in God—a number that has scarcely budged in years. (The figure is 76 percent in Britain and 52 percent in Sweden.) Or take the common polling routine that probes for belief in the Ten Commandments. Again, no Western nation beats the United States. Getting back to sex, for example, 87 percent of Americans tell pollsters that adultery is "always wrong" compared to 48 percent in France. More than three-quarters of the population belong to a church, a steady 40 percent say they went this week, and 9 percent claim to go to church "several times a week." Only the last figure, reported by the National Opinion Research Center, has changed much in the past two decades—and it is up 30 percent.

The measures of American faith stretch on and on. More than one in four Americans owns at least five Bibles. The Family Channel is one of the top ten cable channels, the Christian Broadcast Network claims a million viewers a day. The pope sells out whenever he prays in an American stadium. So does Billy Graham. And mobs of weeping men go to Promise Keepers rallies and roar approval to variations of the following: Jesus is Number One and we are on His team and we are going to win. (Check out the glossy Promise Keepers magazine next time you are at the supermarket.)

Nobody out there is blushing when they whisper "Virtues" to the bookseller.

Nor is religious conviction in America anything new. So why all the breathless moralizing about secular humanism, bad behavior, and looming perdition? To understand, we have to look more directly at the social and political project that lurks beneath the crusade to make us good.


The vice squad has constructed a simple story. Most Americans are good, but we are surrounded by rampant immorality. And that tide of misbehavior threatens America in fundamental ways. The jeremiad has three effects.

First, the moralizing reassures. Good people are not to blame for social troubles or economic tribulations. Quite the contrary, the entire message encourages and comforts moral folks (who manifest their morality by buying the books and calling the toll-free numbers in the first place). "Most of us have a moral sense," writes Wilson. The message resonates precisely because most Americans do consider themselves decent, religious, moral.

Second, the moralizing message drafts readers into a political fight. Each preacher would muster us into a somewhat different battle line in the great American culture war: crime, illegitimacy, divorce (Wilson); crime, welfare, educational discipline, affirmative action (Wattenberg); crime, welfare, teen pregnancy (Newsweek); Satan, moral permissiveness, abortion, drugs (Falwell).

Third, the message engages an enemy. And with this we arrive at the crux of the matter. The effect of all this sermonizing is to construct an often shadowy, immoral "other." These bad people explain why life is hard or why times are confusing or why America is not what it used to be. Some, like the fundamentalist preachers, name names with relish: homosexuals, abortionists, welfare mothers. Others try to pick more carefully. Wattenberg says the battle is about crime and welfare (which all good people agree on) and not about abortion and sexual preference (where his own friends no doubt disagree).

The political result is a great division: a virtuous us, a vicious them. "They" threaten us. "They" are ominous, cruel, and depraved. (I'm not making these words up.) In the real world of political passions, fine distinctions among the issues (like Wattenberg's) get lost in the tumult. The outcry against sin leads, willy-nilly, to the fight against sinners. What we get is the logic of the witch-hunt. The moral framing of our social troubles—good us, evil them—permits leaders (and demagogues) to cash in with whatever enemy resonates among the people (more on just who that really is in a moment).

To be sure, every author I have named would be appalled at talk of witch-hunts. (Almost every Puritan minister was appalled by what went on in Salem in 1692.) But what they have done is framed our politics as a moral crisis that threatens the nation. (Listen to the echoes: "An army of devils is horribly broke in upon the . . . people of God," wrote Cotton Mather about the witches as their trials went on and on.) Leave it to political leaders, angry voters, and less honorable intellectuals to take it from there.

Of course, moral and religious divisions mark most societies. And Americans have long been split between what sociologist James David Hunter calls orthodox perspectives (there is one truth for everyone) and progressive views (truth is contingent, people have their own values). What is different about the great moments of moral conflict is their primacy. The culture war goes front and center on the political stage. Today's moralizers have successfully filled the Great Enemy Vacuum left by the end of the Cold War. The fate of the nation now seems to rest on moral uplift. Ironically, our politics get most ugly precisely when values come to matter most.

What is most startling about the contemporary moral cry is its bias. The celebration of virtue stops at the market's edge. The lamentations about lost values are directed largely at poor people. There is scarcely a word about what the privileged owe their society. This gospel runs lightly over the corporal works of mercy or all that trouble in the temple between Jesus and the money changers. Today, the apostles of virtue offer almost no sermons on loyalty toward workers, obligations toward the poor, or the greed of some corporate officials.

Where are the moralizers when Fleet Finance gets caught in "predatory lending practices" (that means lying to the customers about their interest rates)? And Fleet, New England's largest bank, managed to duck an even worse charge, "equity theft" (that's stealing from the customers). On a still grander scale, the savings-and-loan fiasco involved plenty of moral meltdown along with economic miscalculation. Yet scarcely a word from the political pulpits. The wrath is reserved for bad kids and their moms, not bankers or CEOs.

Why? Partially because the values movement is about explaining popular anxiety. Criminal delinquents make an ominous, predatory other. More important, they fit neatly into a picture of American troubles that conservatives framed long ago: The lazy, self-indulgent, criminal poor are responsible for their own troubles, the growth of liberal welfare government, and the dwindling opportunities for the hard-working, moral us.

Inside this worldview, even the stingy contemporary welfare state is insupportable. Charity means tough love. The kinds of policies that meet the need run to more police, tougher sentences, chain gangs, and the return of death penalties. After all, the good of the nation is at stake.

What is lost is the image of shared fate against common troubles. Benedict Anderson writes that the very idea of a nation rests on "imagined communities"—an idea that people share a common experience, a common fate, and common values. When liberals call for universal programs, they are tapping into precisely such a political construction.

Moral politics wrecks the universalist impulse. Danger is lurking right at home, within our own communities. Programs that provide everyone with, say, health care, fund the very delinquents that threaten our peace.

Precisely that suspicion exploded on the Clinton administration's health reform project. I heard the bang while debating a moderate Republican senator who opposed the president's plan. Toward the end of the session, the senator abruptly turned to face me. His body language said, "OK, now let's quit kidding around."

And here's what followed: "Look, Professor, you can't expect the hard-working people of suburban Cook County to go into the same health care alliance as the crack heads in the city of Chicago." The kicker came when I turned to the audience, all set to joke aside this fatuous dichotomy. What I saw was a roomful of sobered liberals. "Yes," they were thinking, "that is a problem." Our imaginary community—struggling together over a troubled health care system—had vanished. Now it was a hard-working us and a drug-abusing them. "Hey," I yelped, "those uninsured Chicago people are college students and hard-working nurses and taxi drivers doing double shifts and single moms holding down two jobs. . . ." No dice. In fact, it only got worse. Crack heads and single moms.


It goes deeper than defeating new social programs. Moral panics erode liberalism itself. Remember, liberalism grew out of the bloody European religious wars; its early proponents hoped to get the religious fights out of politics by protecting private choices and individual rights. Liberalism, writes Steven Holmes ["The Liberal Idea," TAP, Fall 1991], insists that "no individual can claim to have [political] motives that are morally superior to his neighbors." Or in the inelegant patois of economics, we all maximize our own utilities.

The United States may have the most liberal political rules on the planet, but moral dangers introduce an often illiberal political style. Politics spill into the private sphere. Rights and protections fail to hold. After all, someone is acting in wrong and dangerous ways. Their misbehavior threatens good people. Moral politics would rule the group, their goals, or the way they act right out of the national community. (Yes, of course, there is another moral tradition, which we'll get to.)

The illiberal urge gets particularly intense when sins are projected onto racial or ethnic groups. The underlying political question becomes: Are those strange people going to slip their moral aberrations into our cultural mainstream?

In a society as diverse and changing as this one, moral perils come along all the time. Nineteenth-century mobs often rioted over the growing number of Catholics, occasionally torching those dubious convents full of unmarried woman at the beck of unmarried priests. Chinese men allegedly used opium to seduce white women, prompting a panic and early drug controls beginning in 1877. Even social reformers like Jacob Riis professed disgust at the "ages of senseless idolatry, mere grub worship" that left "John Chinaman" incapable of anything so "gentle" or "unselfish" as Christianity. This prejudice barred Chinese immigrants from naturalization until 1952. Theodore Roosevelt's mentor on immigrants, sociologist E.A. Ross, took an inventory that scored Jews as "moral cripples with dwarfed souls," while Italians threatened the cities with "their coarse peasant philosophy of sex."

These strangers, and many others, all brought depraved practices to America. In resisting the moral dangers—or more accurately, in flailing at the stereotypes—Americans compromised their liberal principles. The real danger lay not in bad men but in bigoted reactions.

Which brings us to race. Nowhere has the tension between rights and morals been more intense. From the slaveholding start, white Americans justified racial suppression by imagining a black immorality that had to be controlled. Powerful stereotypes reasserted themselves across American history, both before and after the Civil War. The most troubling aspect of the new moralizing is the old racial imagery lurking just below the rhetorical surface. In many ways, the contemporary imagery of an immoral "other" recalls the racial constructions that swamped American liberalism with Jim Crow laws a century ago.

Political scientists usually tell the Jim Crow story by analyzing its politics. Congress repealed the laws that implemented the Civil War amendments (1893); the Supreme Court accepted segregation (with Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896); the southern states held conventions that put the Jim Crow laws into place (1895-1905). What is far less often observed is how these maneuvers rested on moral stigma.

White southerners constructed an image of the former slaves as morally unprepared for freedom. The calumny included a standard roster of vices—laziness, dishonesty, thieving, political corruption. But the heart of the matter, endlessly repeated, was the supposed sexual lust of black men. In his popular history, The Tragic Era, Claude Bowers reported the prejudice as fact: "Rape is the foul daughter of Reconstruction." As Bowers told it, the story ended happily, virtue triumphant. When "the Klan began to ride . . . white women felt some sense of security."

The illiberal stereotype of dangerous, immoral African Americans gained wide currency—in the North as well as the South, in academic history, social science, and popular culture. All elevated the fiction of black lust (and the necessary discipline imposed by beleaguered whites through organizations like the Ku Klux Klan) into the standard historical narrative.

An almost hysterical portrait runs through the popular culture of the period. One scene from Thomas Dixon's best-selling The Leopard's Spots, set in 1865 but published in 1902, illustrates the point. The daughter of a heroic Confederate veteran is getting married. Suddenly, a group of burly black men in federal army uniforms (their eyes red with lust, all the power of Washington backing their depravity) burst in upon the wedding party. They seize the terrified bride and carry her off into the woods. The young bridegroom proves his manhood—he grabs a rifle and shoots his wife in the head before the black men can do the unspeakable. The father is overwhelmed with gratitude. "You saved my little gal. I want to shake hands with you." Repeating the same line as historians like Bowers, Dixon portrays the Klan as heroic defenders of white virtue. His The Clansman, written in the following year, was the basis for D.W. Griffith's celebrated 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation.

Progressive social scientists, their heads stuffed with misapplications of Darwin, repeated and enlarged the stereotype. Frederick Hoffman, a German-born actuary (and therefore, he avers, without prejudice on race matters), comes to the following conclusion in his highly influential Race Traits of the American Negro: "All the facts prove that a low standard of sexual morality is the main and underlying cause of the low and anti-social condition of the race at the present time." And how does Hoffman measure this low standard of sexual morality? "The rate of increase in lynching may be accepted as representing fairly the increasing tendency of colored men to commit the most frightful of crimes." He concludes with a stern warning: "Intercourse with the white race must absolutely cease."

Hoffman was no marginal figure. A book review published by the American Negro Academy in 1897 called Race Traits the most important book on American race relations since Uncle Tom's Cabin. As chief actuary for Prudential, Hoffman defined African Americans as uninsurable risks. Two decades later he would help lead the first great fight against national health insurance.

There were, of course, voices on the other side. African Americans struggled to answer the critics in conferences, monographs, and books. They told the story of free men and women struggling to make new lives for themselves after the Civil War despite violence, poverty, and repression. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, took on historians like Bowers directly in his extraordinary Reconstruction, published in 1935. But as Du Bois lamented, his colleagues politely ignored his revisions. To the American majority, real African Americans were invisible, hidden by scary fables about "low standards of sexual morals." Americans set liberalism aside and constructed their apartheid.

The great twentieth-century civil rights movement should be read in the same moral context. It was more than a battle about southern institutions. It was a religiously inspired movement that drew on a very different American moral tradition and forced white Americans to revise their racial images.

Now the old stigmas are back, revived by the latest round of culture wars. They glint through contemporary stereotypes about crime, welfare, teen pregnancy, and underclass immorality. Amid a renewed crusade against vice, old racial images reintroduce a prefabricated racial "them."

American cities have always gathered young toughs of every nationality and color. Now, a growing literature runs criminals together with poor people, turns them black, and dubs them a menacing underclass—the ultimate amoral them. Incredibly, the construction stands for an entire race. In The End of Racism, Dinesh D'Souza blurts out what most of his colleagues have the wit to remain mum about: It is entirely rational for city dwellers to treat all black men as threatening members of an immoral and predatory underclass. For "taxidrivers, storekeepers, and women," writes D'Souza, "the prejudice is warranted. In this context, a bigot is simply a sociologist without credentials." Finally, "discrimination today is . . . based more on reality than on illusion." The formula is familiar. Construct a stereotype, project it onto an entire group, take protective action.

What we get is injustice and illiberality. Take, for example, what may be the most active battle line in the contemporary morality crusades, the war on drugs. African Americans constitute 12 percent of the population and an estimated 13 percent of American drug users. They account for 35 percent of the arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of all convictions for drug possession, and a whopping 74 percent of all prison sentences. A staggering number of young black men pass through the judicial system (read, jail) as a consequence of the drug war and its biases. The effect is to clear the city streets of young black men (and tough mandatory sentences will keep them off the streets).

To be sure, drug abuse is a terrible problem, although by most indicators, alcohol causes more damage—more days lost from work, more violence, more death. Come to think of it, everything we hear about drugs, our great-grandparents once heard about alcohol. Drinking too was a depraved practice pushed by greedy men who wrecked lives and families among the dangerous classes while threatening the children of the better classes with addiction and misery. But today alcohol is a medical problem. In contrast, illegal drugs perpetuate the old urge to rest societal problems squarely on the shoulders of sinful people making foolish and immoral choices.

There is still the terrible carnage of the drug traffic itself. Does the solution lie in following the alcohol approach—legalize drugs and redefine drug abuse as a medical problem? James Q. Wilson suggests that the result might well be "less crime," "fewer gangs," and a "more straightforward public health approach" to the problem. Even so, he opposes the idea. Why? Because, writes Wilson in Drugs and Crime, "the government has the obligation to form and sustain the character of the citizenry."

Perhaps Wilson is right. Legalization is certainly not a simple answer. And replacing our punitive approach to addiction with a more medically oriented one is more easily called for than accomplished. But note how our allegedly secular, amoral society places drug legalization off the policy agenda. Few politicians could get away with so much as publicly weighing the pros and the cons about fighting our most important moral fight. And so we are left running in an unhappy circle: The demilitarization of the drug war is off the table because the state should set a moral example and shape the character of its citizens. But the government's enforcement system is deeply biased—13 percent of the users supply 74 percent of the inmates. And programs that might offer alternatives, expand economic opportunities, and promote social justice are derailed partially by the pervasive, biased stereotypes about crack heads and criminals.

Of course, there is an entirely different side to the American racial story. The flourishing of black artists, writes Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "may truly be the renaissance to end all renaissance." And never mind the alleged underclass. Carol Stack's lyrical Call to Home portrays profoundly stable family networks stretching across generations, reaching from northern cities to southern roots. She pictures communities of sophisticated urbanites and their rural kin struggling with wisdom and patience against poverty and racism. In a book soon to be published by the Russell Sage Foundation, Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein offer a striking portrait of hard-working urban welfare recipients struggling to get by in Making Ends Meet. They join an already large and growing pile of books and articles that expose the bigoted racial stereotypes for what they are.

These eloquent accounts are so hard to hear because they are drowned out by the moralizer's message. As long as the American master narrative is one of declining values and a threatening amoral them, it is difficult to see real fellow citizens through the images of misbehavior and predation. It is precisely this framework that takes a relatively small program like Aid to Families with Dependent Children and blows it up into 40 million indolents lounging in a cart while the rest of us push hard to give them their ride. (USA Today featured this bromide from Senator Phil Gramm as a front-page explanation of the 1994 midterm election results.) The patient responses that fill journals like The American Prospect with charts and tables are swamped by the larger image of sinking values, moral depravity, and the irresponsible them.


But don't we face an unprecedented moral crisis? No. And constructing our policy problems as moral meltdowns make them far more difficult to address.

Start with violent crime. The most reliable statistics are for murder (which unlike, say, spouse abuse, is tough to hush up). Yes, the murder rate is high. In 1995 it was double the rate of 40 years earlier. Murders in New York City are up more than 500 percent since 1960. While other crimes are more difficult to track precisely, they roughly shadow the homicide rate. And according to some analysts, the rise in random violence, like drive-by shootings (instantly flashed in our faces via television), amplify popular anxiety about public order.

Yet the picture of a predatory class awash in ever more violence is misleading. The murder rate last year was precisely what it was 25 years ago—and down 10 percent from the peak in 1980. The murder rate was higher in 1933 than it is today. (And talking about social pathology, the 1933 rate included 28 lynchings.)

The language of looming crisis and lost control are all long-standing features of urban life. Fear of the dangerous classes marked each stage in the evolution of the urban political economy. Abraham Lincoln warned in 1838 of the "outrages committed by mobs" and "the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country." A half century later, Dewitt Talmage, a celebrated nineteenth-century preacher, put it this way, "Boys and girls will play in the streets . . . without police protection" only when Christians take up arms against "the sins of the city." Crime waves, crime panics, and cries for our lost morals are as old as the cities.

Instead of sermonizing and demonizing, a sensible policy would focus on both punishing criminals and addressing the causes of crime—"tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime," as British Labor leader Tony Blair puts it. Perhaps some liberals and progressives were queasy about punishment in the past. But most now recognize that crime makes life in poor neighborhoods especially difficult. That, after all, is where most of the victims live. In Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, Jacqueline Jones quotes one black woman on raising her family in Washington, D.C., during the 1920s: "I have lived here long enough to know that you can't grow a good potato out of bad ground. This sure is bad ground."

A sensible crime policy also has to address a vast array of underlying causes that run a wide policy spectrum. First, there is the sheer firepower available in America: lots of guns, faster guns, more powerful guns. Almost three million handguns were manufactured and marketed in the U.S. in 1993. Second, it is time for a sustained, national reevaluation of the war on drugs. Our public policies have succeeded in making them scarcer, more expensive, and ironically more lucrative (though wealth is an illusion for most of the young men in the drug business). Third, we face the still more difficult problem of declining demand for unskilled labor. Job growth has always been cyclical, but the postindustrial economy wipes out a major traditional track out of poverty. (And as articles in this magazine have repeatedly demonstrated, the Federal Reserve's crusade against inflation successfully chokes off job growth before employers are reduced to calling on the long-term unemployed.)

The features of an enlightened crime policy stretch on—better education, job training, urban infrastructure, a decent minimum wage. In the long run, these are the kinds of reforms that create a safer and more just society. But the moralizers' message—the resurrection of the dangerous, depraved, urban them—pushes these possibilities right off the policy agenda.

Well, what about sex? The preachers positively wallow in their denunciations of the pelvic sins—and here the academics gnash their teeth as loudly as the fundamentalists. The jeremiads all begin with the same premise: We are reaping the bitter harvest of the permissive 1960s culture. But the moralizers disagree on the consequences. Reading from political right to left, we get denunciation of homosexuality, abortion, promiscuity, illegitimacy, teen pregnancy, the collapse of marriage, and kids without dads.

Amid these hot-button issues, one theme gathers broad support: traditional families. Alarm is spreading about the growing number of children being raised by a single parent. The 1990 census puts the figure at 28 percent of all children and 60.6 percent of African American children, up from 21.5 percent and 51.9 percent respectively in 1980. Even sensible moderates gulp hard at those numbers. Surely, concludes the conventional wisdom, this is a genuine moral crisis. Or is it?

Today, divorce is the largest factor, accounting for 40 percent of all the single-parent households in 1990. We live in a "divorce culture," writes David Blankenhorn in his widely cited book Fatherless America. Marriage, according to Blankenhorn, has become "old fashioned, beleaguered, even quaint—a way of life primarily suitable for older or boring people." Somehow, we have got to seize our norms and restore the old marriage culture. But according to the 1990 census, more than 79 percent of the households include a married couple, down undramatically from 82.5 percent a decade earlier. Divorce culture? Hardly.

Yet look at the familiar political result. Once again a large, righteous, properly married audience is primed to tsk at (and regulate) the immoral minority that threatens the social order with its promiscuous behavior. Michigan Governor John Engler has gotten the policy crusade rolling with a proposed law that makes divorce more difficult. Supporters of such laws rest their case on a simple maxim: Divorce is bad for kids.

Of course, not all marriages work and not all families are good for children. The new proposals dust off the old divorce loopholes—alcohol, drugs, cheating, physical abuse, mental abuse. Count on prolonged arguments about what exactly constitutes mental cruelty these days. Defining mental abuse points to the buried question that lies at the very heart of the issue: What is a proper family? What is the social institution we are trying to revive?

Beneath the clamor for getting both parents under the same roof lies the agitated matter of how the family ought to be organized. Consider the range of strongly felt contemporary views. On the one side, conservative Christians insist that "a woman's call to be a wife and mother is the highest calling." Reverend Jerry Falwell spells out the implicit organizational chart. God intends "the husband . . . to be the decision maker. . . . Wives and children want to follow." For some conservatives, men who cook dinner or women who pursue careers are violating divinely ordained gender roles. Across the cultural spectrum, the organizing statement of the National Organization of Women offers a different perspective: "A true partnership between the sexes demands a different concept of marriage, an equitable sharing of responsibilities of home and children and economic burdens." And still further along on the American cultural spectrum, Heather has two moms.

What has happened is a lot more complex than the images of rampant promiscuity imply. Rather, we have lost our consensus about the nature of the family—or, more precisely, about the nature of the women's role. Nor is this a bad thing. The halcyon days of stable marriage featured dependent women without significant career options or the real prospect of supporting themselves. It is far easier to bar the marriage door when one member of the couple is subordinate and dependent, without any meaningful exit option.

This does not mean giving up. By all means, let us find ways that encourage stable marriages and strong parenting. Change the tax laws. Strengthen the support services that help parents. Mend our communities. But remember that the forces moralizing for marital commitment strongly disagree about what a good marriage is. And the golden era they recall was structured on an inequity that is, happily, fading.

Moreover, trying to lock people into marriage without addressing the root causes of marital breakup is likely to undermine the institution itself—more couples delaying marriage, declining marriage, and departing marriage without a formal divorce. Ironically, it is apt to push the rest of society toward the patterns that dominate the African American community: mothers who never got married in the first place.

Turning to black families switches the focus from divorce to out-of-wedlock births. Fifty-one percent of one-parent black families are headed by moms who never married. Only 21 percent are divorced, compared to 28 percent never-married and 40 percent divorced across all races. The obvious question is why? The obvious answers are wrong.

The stereotype pictures a soaring rate of children bearing children encouraged by overly generous welfare handouts. But there is scant evidence that welfare benefits explain many sins: States with low benefits do not have appreciably lower rates of separation, divorce, or out-of-wedlock births. More important, pregnancy and birth rates among young black teenagers have actually declined. The pregnancy rates fell 13 percent for African American women between 15 and 17 years old in the two decades following 1970. Ironically, condemnation has been shrillest while teen pregnancy rates have declined.

Nor should we idealize past purity. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Midwife's Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich computed the percentage of first births conceived out of wedlock in and around Hallowell, Maine between 1785 and 1812. The result was a myth-popping 38 percent.

Still, out-of-wedlock births are high and growing as a proportion of all births among African Americans (in part because births among married women have declined). More careful recent analyses point to a series of structural causes of the rise in out-of-wedlock births: the great migration to the urban north; the lack of "marriageable males" in the black community (according to William Julius Wilson, there are 84 black men for every 100 women in the black community, compared to 99 per 100 among whites); and the relatively greater economic power black women have in their relations with black men (partially because of high unemployment among black males).

However, even sophisticated analyses often overlook the women themselves. As Adolf Reed commented in a review of William Julius Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged, women in the inner city have devised a "network of organizational and institutional forms" that "create meaning and dignity in lives bitterly constrained by forces apparently beyond their control." Their marriage and childbearing choices are part of that struggle for meaning and dignity. This is not to say that these decisions are always ideal, but neither hectoring them with sermons nor using public policy to punish them is likely to create strong two-parent families.

What about the kids? Precisely the right question. How do we improve the lives of American children? The real answers involve sustained commitment to improving education, health care, housing, and child care; training and decent wages for parents; jobs and institutional infrastructure for communities. As a society, we went a long way to improving the life chances of our children's grandparents—the poverty rates among the elderly have declined dramatically in the past generation. The question is how to do the same for children. Addressing that question may go a long way to solving the dilemma of single parents.

The chances of succeeding at any of this are not improved one whit by the morality project. On the contrary, we will not mend our imaginary community nor restore a more generous, universalistic public spirit until we put aside the images of an immoral, unvirtuous them.


Contemporary moralizing lays the burden for American troubles squarely on the shoulders of troublesome Americans. There is an alternative to this emphasis on corrupt individuals

Throughout American history, religion has inspired reformers to fight against legal and economic injustice—to fight for individuals. Moral crusades rouse Americans to expand rights, overcome biases, attack inequity.

The paradigmatic cases are familiar: abolitionism after 1830, the women's movement in the second half of the nineteenth century, the civil rights movement of the twentieth century. Each invoked a higher morality to challenge exclusion and injustice. But perhaps this different kind of moral crusade is most clearly illustrated by a less familiar case.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the social gospel movement self-consciously emphasized the moral responsibilities of the powerful toward the poor. Those who profited from the new economic order were accountable for the burdens it placed on their workers. As Walter Rauschenbusch, the best-known author of the movement, put it: "During the great industrial crisis in the '90s, I . . . could hear virtue crackling and crumbling all around. If anyone has a sound reason for taking the competitive system by the throat in righteous wrath, it is the unmarried woman and the mother with girls." Drawing on religious imagery and language, Rauschenbusch scorched the inhumanity of "our industrial machine" for the moral pressures that it put on good men and women.

Charles Sheldon's In His Steps, an extraordinarily popular novel of the same period, pictured how a midwestern town (Topeka, Kansas) would change if all its leaders were guided by the simple question, "What would Jesus do?" There is plenty of silliness throughout the book. But Sheldon imagines the business leaders of the Gilded Age getting religion and running out to meet their workers—to shake their hands and listen to them with respect.

The sinking feeling one gets trekking across the tomes and the tapes of the contemporary morality project comes from the complete absence of even this (rather feeble) social vision. The poor ought to learn to give back to society—more church and less crime, more discipline and fewer delinquents. But rarely a word of how the society and its rules might be biased. Not a hint of going out and listening to the workers with respect—much less helping them struggle with the dislocations of economic transformation.

Despite the thunder, American spiritual life is not going to hell. What all that moralizing does is to organize American rhetoric against social justice, against progressive politics, against national community altogether. In an era when many poor Americans struggle extraordinarily hard, the preachers blame them for their own poverty, turn them on one another, turn Americans against themselves.

The story of moral depravity is well worn. Americans have survived their own unprecedented wickedness—many times. The moralizing routine was already old when the Synod of 1679 published its list of sins. The real threat is not moral decline. It is what Americans do to their own society in the name of arresting moral decline.

You may also like

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)